Dave’s 5-step Speedy Vocal Microphone Audition

How do you choose the right lead vocal mic for a project? There are many approaches; one engineer friend would regularly spend a half day or more auditioning various microphones with the artist, while another used the same microphone, his “vocal mic”, no matter who was coming in to record. My approach is somewhere in the middle. I want to use the microphone that best suits the singer and the music, but since we almost never have the luxury of a half-day to experiment, I have to audition mics as efficiently as possible. Here’s my approach.

  1. Know what the singer sounds like.

It’s not often that I come into a session without any idea the style of music we’re going to record. The way we set up sessions here — where to set up drums, where to put the musicians, amps, and instruments, which microphones to use — all of this may change with the genre, but also with the band. Before almost every project, I’ve either listened to demos or I’ve had the opportunity to meet the artists and listen to their music in a pre-production meeting.

  1. Choose three microphones from the mic locker that should work with your singer.

I would typically choose three — a couple of large diaphragm condensers and a dynamic mic. Occasionally, I’ll set up a ribbon mic as well, but that’s style (and voice) specific. How do I choose which mics to audition out of all of the mics in our Microphone Vault? The simple answer is that I’m pretty familiar with the sound of my main choices, and how they are likely to respond to a specific voice. I’ll set up the condenser mic that I think will work best, and I’ll chose a dynamic mic — either a Shure SM7B or an Electro-Voice RE-20 — as a second mic, since those are sometimes the perfect sound. The SM7B can be a great mic for a screaming rock/metal singer, and the RE-20 can be great on a wide range of singers; both Michael Jackson and Bonnie Raitt have used RE-20s with great success. The third mic I choose might be another large diaphragm condenser with a different response than the first — for example, I might be sure that a Telefunken 251 would be the best mic for a singer, but will set up a Manley Reference Gold, a Neumann U87, or even a mic that I’ve not used much on a singer, like Austrian Audio’s OC818.

  1. Set up and calibrate mics

Set the microphones up in a row as close together as you can, with a single pop filter about eight inches in front of the mic. Plug each mic into a preamp and then into your DAW. While we use the same mic preamp on all three mics, don’t worry if you don’t have three channels of your favorite preamp available. If you regularly mix and match microphones and preamps, plug each mic into the preamp you’d use it with. Calibrate the preamps so each mic will have the same sensitivity and will record and play back at the same volume. The cool way to do this is to run a tone through a small speaker that you’ve set up in the singer’s position — but the way most of us do it is to have someone stand in front of the pop filter and sing or talk. If you can get each mic to within .5dB you’re doing great — and even 1dB difference between the loudest and softest track should work, because you can adjust the playback levels from your DAW. Make sure that you have enough headroom that not even the singer’s loudest notes will overload the preamps.

  1. Record a verse and chorus through all three microphones at one time

Everything before this should be prepared before the artist arrives: three microphones set up next to each other, a pop filter eight inches in front of them (so that the singer will be more or less in the same position with reference to all three mics), the preamps set so that each mic will be the same volume going into the DAW, and, if necessary, each track in the DAW adjusted so all three mics play back at the same level.

Have the artist sing for 30 seconds to a minute, both loud and soft (usually, that will be a verse and a chorus). Once you’ve done that, invite the singer into the control room to listen to what they’ve done.

  1. Listen to all three with the artist, choose the one that sounds the best

My experience with this process is that after listening a few times, we’ll agree on which microphone sounds best on the singer. I’ll put the other two mics away, add a compressor to the vocal chain, and start recording. This process should take less than 10 minutes, and we move forward, comfortable we’ve chosen the best mic for the project.  On rare occasions that NONE of the mics sound great, we start again, with three different microphones.

Dave Martin

Dave Martin is a Producer and Engineer in the Sweetwater Studios.  Dave boasts 40+ years of experience playing electric and acoustic bass, both live and in the recording studio, and more than 35 years of producing and engineering recording projects.

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